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Subterranean Theology (Part 1)

Subterranean Theology (Part 1) June 7, 2014

Subterranean Theology (Part 1)

Lately I’ve become interested in exploring what I call “subterranean theology.” So what is that? Subterranean theology is presuppositions that lie beneath the explicit methods and doctrines of someone’s theology; it/they condition explicit, “above ground” theology often without being seen or acknowledged.

Of course, I realize I’m not the first to do this! It’s a favorite topic of doctoral dissertations and theological tomes written for scholars. My interest is in making the reality of subterraneanism in theology more familiar to lay people and students.

My experience is that most Christians (and others but here I’m mainly concerned with Christians) think “theology” is drawn directly from the Bible or tradition (creeds, church fathers’ and reformers’ writings, etc.) without biases coloring it. The reasons for differing theologies are attributed to ignorance or bad hermeneutics or failure to break out of tradition or whatever. What most people don’t know, that most theologians do know (except fundamentalists), is that differences in theology often arise from different perspectives on issues not settled by the Bible or tradition or reason. These “subterranean” perspectives, presuppositions, often determine what the Bible can and cannot mean and what traditions are to be taken seriously and whether and how reason functions in theology.

By now someone is wanting examples. So here goes. Take reason, for example. Should a Christian theology, a set of beliefs, be internally coherent? Is contradiction, including apparent contradiction (paradox) necessarily a sign of error or weakness in a theology?

Hopefully you get the idea. Let’s look at that issue in light of, say, the Reformation. Luther and his Catholic scholastic opponents could not even communicate meaningfully, experience a true meeting of the minds, partly because the scholastics valued internal consistency between theological ideas whereas Luther did not. Luther, for example, believed the whole Bible was dictated by God and yet considered James an “epistle of straw.” The scholastics, on the other hand, could not conceive of a “righteousness of God” that did not demand merit for right standing with God. Luther reveled in paradoxes; the scholastics did not. That’s a major “subterranean” reason why they often talked past each other even when talking to each other.

Another example from the same time is Luther’s debate with Zwingli over the Lord’s Supper. Luther assumed that being “God” means being capable of being everywhere at once (ubiquity). So, he believed, denial that Jesus could be “in, with, and under” the bread and wine was an implicit denial of the deity of Christ. Zwingli could not conceive how a human being could be ubiquitous, so he believed Luther’s view implied a denial of the true humanity of Christ. Both could appeal to Scripture, but the real reason for their disagreement, or at least a major reason for it, was “subterranean”—on the level of hidden presuppositions not drawn from Scripture alone.

Subterranean theology is pre-biblical theology. It is the exploration of mindsets, presuppositions, perspectives on reality that are not derived from the Bible because the Bible doesn’t provide or prove them (or their alternatives). They are the “glasses,” so to speak, with which people read the Bible.

Does this, then, support relativism? Can’t every worthwhile theological question be settled from scripture or at least scripture and tradition? I don’t accept that acknowledgement of subterranean theology necessarily implies relativism, but it does imply perspectivalism. Some people who cannot tell the difference between incommensurable perspectives and relativity of truth itself confuse them. I think that’s a sign of intellectual weakness.

On the other hand, just because “subterranean” perspectives exist and condition theologies does not mean there are no methods for moving beyond the impasses they create. But there’s no simple method for that; subterranean perspectives are often impervious to criticism and correction because they decide for the believing person what counts as evidence and reason.

Let me give two more examples. Nominalism and realism are radically conflicting subterranean perspectives on reality and scripture alone does not teach one or the other. And reason can’t decide between them because both can be perfectly reasonable. A second example is ecclesiological—whether the New Testament church was the model church, the whole, healthy, adult church from which the church later fell and to which it ought to return, or whether it was the “church in embryo” that was meant to change and develop over time. The New Testament doesn’t settle that and churches are radically different from each other partly because of that difference of perspectives. “Restorationism” is the mindset, the subterranean assumption, that the New Testament church ought to be restored in every age. Highly liturgical, hierarchical churches do not assume that. To them the New Testament church was the church in its infancy and it’s natural for the church, as for a person, to grow and change as it matures.

Back to the issue of how to decide in matters of subterraneanism. When a difference in theology is rooted in subterraneanism, is there any way forward toward settling which is right and which is wrong (if that’s important)? Are any common criteria for evaluating subterranean perspectives on pre-biblical issues? That will be the subject of Part 2 of this series.


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